JLD campaign: Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE)
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is introducing a new route to qualifying as a solicitor: the Solicitors Qualifying Examination (SQE). The change is planned for autumn 2021.
Currently, to qualify as a solicitor, you must:
- take a qualifying law degree, or non-law degree and graduate diploma in law (GDL)
- complete the Legal Practice Couse (LPC)
- complete two years of training (the period of recognised training, often called a training contract)
- pass the professional skills course (PSC)
When the SQE is introduced, you’ll need to do the following.
- Take a degree in any subject, or an equivalent qualification such as a Level 6 apprenticeship or Level 6 CILEx qualification, or have equivalent experience.
- Pass SQE level 1 – made up of multiple-choice questions (MCQs) testing the common core areas that students would typically learn on a qualifying law degree or GDL, and possibly some element of skills testing. This will be assessed at a lower standard than that of a newly qualified solicitor.
- Complete at least two years of qualifying work experience (QWE), which has a wider definition than the period of recognised training. QWE can be taken in up to four different organisations, which can include legal advice clinics at universities. A qualified solicitor will sign off the fact that this work experience took place and gave the candidate the opportunity to develop the skills required of a qualified solicitor. However, the solicitor will not assess or comment on the candidate’s competence.
- Pass SQE level 2 – made up of skills tests, including client interviewing, negotiation and case and matter analysis. Each skill is tested twice in two areas of law, and assessed at the standard of a competent newly qualified solicitor.
The SRA says it’s introducing this change to:
- ensure consistent, high standards
- offer more flexibility around training and work-based experience, giving candidates more choices about the route they take, such as solicitor apprenticeships, or law degrees that include SQE training
- reduce the cost of qualification
The SRA plans to introduce the SQE in autumn 2021 at the earliest.
In March 2018 the Legal Services Board (LSB), which oversees the SRA and other legal services regulators, approved the SRA’s application to introduce the SQE. Before it introduces the SQE, the SRA will need to apply to the LSB again for approval of the final regulatory arrangements.
When the SQE is introduced, transitional arrangements will be put in place. If you’ve been accepted onto a qualifying law degree (or GDL) or are any later in the process of qualifying as a solicitor on the current route by the time the SQE is implemented, you'll be able to choose between continuing on the current route to qualification (LLB, LPC, training contract and PSC) or the SQE.
If you've already started the process of qualifying as a solicitor under the current route, the long-stop date (the latest time by which you need to have qualified under the traditional/current route) is expected to be autumn 2032.
After this, the SRA says that you'll have to take the SQE in order to qualify. However, this will also depend on how the market reacts to the SQE and whether the LPC/training contracts/PSCs are still offered between 2021 and 2032. If these disappear, you may have to qualify by taking the SQE, regardless of the long-stop date.
The JLD’s view
The JLD supports the idea of a consistent, centralised standard of qualification. We recognise that there are problems with the current system of education and training.
We’ve asked our members what they think, at meetings, training and networking events, and through our website. Most junior lawyers think that we need more information about the new process of qualifying.
Many are concerned about:
- how much the SQE will cost (as it now seems likely that it will cost as much as the current route), including any preparatory courses, and what funding is available
- what the exams will look like and how candidates will obtain good quality QWE
- whether law firms will prefer the traditional route to the SQE, and, in turn, create a two-tier standard of solicitor, and how the new process will differ from traditional training contracts
The JLD would also like more information on:
- how QWE will work (for both prospective solicitors and those signing it off)
- how the SQE will affect social mobility and diversity in the profession
- whether the SQE will be offered in Welsh
The JLD also has other concerns about the SQE.
There is limited time between now and autumn 2021 to introduce the SQE effectively.
Diversity and social mobility
To save money, candidates from lower socio-economic backgrounds may choose to take SQE 1 without taking a preparatory course first, which may mean they achieve worse results.
Also, the SQE 1 pilot concluded that BAME candidates performed worse, particularly in the skills questions. We have requested the data from the SRA and asked that it provides further information to explain how it plans to address this.
The JLD questions whether firms that specialise in social welfare or legal aid practice areas are likely to be able to offer QWE, or whether the SQE preparatory courses will offer any training on these areas of law, given that the SQE will not test skills in this context.
All this leads us to question the impact the SQE will have on diversity in the profession.
Quality of the qualification
QWE will be unregulated, so may not be of the same quality as the period of recognised training, because the requirements are not as strict or clear.
Candidates will no longer need to do both contentious and non-contentious work during their QWE. We believe that non-contentious experience gives candidates skills that will be useful to them if they choose to specialise in non-contentious work. We also believe that removing this requirement will limit candidates’ opportunities when they qualify.
QWE will need to be signed off by a solicitor. This sign off is to confirm that the candidate has had the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to practise as a solicitor, but the competence of the candidate will not be certified. The SRA considers that the SQE will assess a candidate's competence to become a solicitor.
However, it is currently not planning to require candidates to take the elements of the SQE in a particular order. This means that candidates could do SQE 1 and SQE2 before starting QWE. It seems sensible to the JLD that, if the SQE2 is to be assessed to the standard of a newly qualified solicitor, it should come after the candidate has undertaken QWE, to prove competence and adequate on-the-job training.
We're also concerned about the impact of removing the requirement for a qualifying law degree or GDL, and the impact this will have on a solicitor's knowledge of areas of law.
We understand that the SRA is currently considering whether to include a skills element within SQE 1, or whether this exam should simply be MCQs. This follows the pilot of SQE 1 which did include two skills assessments. We do not believe that MCQs alone are a robust way of assessing competence.
What we're doing
We’ve raised our concerns with the SRA through:
- joint letters with the Law Society
- responding to the SRA’s four consultations on the SQE
- meetings with representatives of the SRA to discuss how to move forward
We've asked the SRA to:
- give more information on how the new process will work – including QWE
- explain how impact assessments will be developed to monitor the effect SQE is to have on diversity and social mobility, and particularly how disability and ethnicity are impacted by the SQE
- develop an SQE timetable to help the profession prepare for the changes
- publish the raw data from the first pilot so that key stakeholders can understand the issues arising from the pilot of SQE1, particularly in relation to candidates from ethnic minorities, and then consider whether the changes the SRA is suggesting to SQE 1 are adequate and appropriate, in light of the pilot
- support our call for the government to make loans available to SQE candidates
- ensure that the SQE encourages a more accessible, open and diverse profession
- conduct more risk assessments, and an independent equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) risk assessment to explore the potential risks and benefits to equality and diversity in the profession
- review whether SQE 2 should be taken after a candidate’s QWE (rather than before) so it’s the final test of a candidate’s ability to be certified as a qualified solicitor
- provide more clarity and certainty for those who will be signing off on QWE
- speak to key stakeholders about offering the SQE in the Welsh language
We've also contacted other groups including:
- the LSB
- the Justice (Select) Committee
- the Welsh Language Commissioner
We've recorded a series of podcasts about the SQE to support our members:
- Solicitors Qualifying Examination overview (17 minutes)
- The Junior Lawyers Division perspective on SQE (20 minutes)
- SQE 1 with Julie Brannan, director of education and training at the SRA (40 minutes)
- SQE – the international perspective (17 minutes)
What you can do
Although the SRA has decided to introduce the SQE, the JLD will continue to campaign on this issue and respond to further consultations on how it will work.
Tell us your views on the SQE, so we can represent you as a member.
Join the discussion about how the SQE develops:
- Follow us on Twitter and Instagram
- Find us on LinkedIn and Facebook
- Join the SRA’s SQE LinkedIn group
What’s happened so far
The JLD wrote to the SRA detailing its continued concerns about the introduction of the SQE, ahead of the SRA’s final application to the Legal Services Board (LSB) for approval for the SQE in July.
While the JLD is clear that it supports the decision to overhaul the current system of qualification and to introduce a standard centralised examination, it wants to ensure that its broader implementation is fit for purpose, maintains high standards and does not create an arbitrary barrier for entry to the profession.
- JLD chair Charlotte Parkinson and immediate past chair Amy Clowrey met with the Lord Chief Justice to discuss junior lawyer initiatives, including our concerns about the SQE
- 31 January 2020 – the JLD met the LSB to discuss our key concerns about the SQE and the future SRA application to the LSB. The JLD has since been invited to attend a roundtable discussion with key stakeholders, including the LSB, SRA, Justice (Select) Committee and Law Society
- 26 November 2019 – the Law Society and the JLD wrote a second joint letter to the SRA, raising our concerns. We’ve since received a response to this letter and will meet with the SRA in early 2020 to discuss these concerns, before the SRA’s second application to the LSB
- 8 November 2019 – the JLD wrote to the LSB ahead of the SRA’s second application to it. We've received a response and will meet the LSB in early 2020 to discuss further
- 8 November 2019 – the JLD wrote to the Welsh Language Commissioner (WLC) about the SRA’s decision not to offer SQE assessments in the Welsh language. We’ve spoken with the WLC and understand that the SRA is talking to key stakeholders about the Welsh qualification requirements. We will follow up with the WLC in early 2020
- 7 November 2019 – the JLD wrote to the Justice (Select) Committee to address further issues discussed at the July meeting about the introduction of the SQE. The committee has been invited to attend a roundtable discussion with the JLD, SRA and LSB in early 2020 to discuss concerns further
- 27 September – the SRA responded to the joint JLD and Law Society letter. Many concerns were not addressed to our satisfaction, so we sent a further letter in November 2019
- 5 September 2019 – following the release of the SQE pilot results, the Law Society and the JLD wrote a joint letter to the SRA outlining our concerns
- 31 July 2019 – the SRA published the results of its pilot of SQE 1
- 15 July 2019 – the JLD met with the Justice (Select) Committee to discuss the LSB's approval of the SRA's first SQE application and concerns over the SQE in more detail
- 21 June 2019 – the JLD wrote to the Justice (Select) Committee to ask the committee to hold an evidence session or short inquiry to review the decision to introduce the SQE
- 11 January 2019 – the JLD responded to the SRA’s consultation on the Qualifying Lawyers Transfer Scheme (which helps qualified lawyers from other jurisdictions become a solicitor of England and Wales), and addressed the impact of the SQE
- 8 November 2018 – the SRA announced that the launch of the SQE would be delayed from autumn 2020 to autumn 2021, and that the candidate fee would be likely to be £3,000-£4,500
- 1 August 2018 – the SRA appointed Kaplan to develop and run the SQE on the SRA’s behalf, for the first eight years of the SQE. Kaplan will not provide training for the SQE
- The JLD responded to the SRA consultation A new route to qualification: New regulations
- The JLD responded to the SRA consultation A new route to qualification: The Solicitors Qualifying Exam